LETTER FROM THE EDITOR: Zella Powell is a woman well worth honoring


Corryn Brock, Editor-in-Chief

In September 2020, University President David Glassman asked me during an interview on Douglas Hall what name I thought would be best if the university decided to rename the building. Having looked around at who the university could consider come time to change the name, I had a few ideas of names that could be a good fit.

One of those names was Zella Powell.

At that time, I did not know much about Zella. I knew she was probably Eastern’s first Black graduate, she graduated in 1910 and that the university had next to nothing in terms of information on this person who seemed to me to be a pretty important figure in Eastern’s history.

As I looked into her, I came to dead end after dead end. I would always revisit the idea but always found nothing.

Then, last summer, I had a breakthrough of sorts. I found out Eastern’s records had an incorrect married name for Zella. Once I had that information, I was able to learn so much more about her.

I found newspaper articles from all over the state, information on where she lived and who her family was and eventually found her living granddaughters, one of them being Stephanie Wright-Griggs.

At this point, I just wanted to know more about Zella and be able to share who she was with the campus. She was a groundbreaker at Eastern, and I didn’t want to pass up on the opportunity to teach people about such an amazing person in Eastern’s history.

Little did I know at that time just how deep her legacy runs.

Coming from a pioneer family in Mattoon, Zella made her way to Eastern to become a teacher. Later, she met her husband who shared her occupation and they made their life in Chicago. She had a daughter, Louise, who had her parents’ love for education and, from what I found, her mother’s trailblazing spirit. I realized this when I learned about her role in the Civil Rights movement in Michigan and the creation of Detroit’s Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History (named after her husband with a library inside that carries her name). I also learned that Zella’s granddaughters went on to do incredible things, with Stephanie formerly serving as the C.O.O. of Provident Hospital in Chicago and her granddaughter Carla being a medical doctor with her own practice.

With such an amazing tie to Coles County, her legacy and the life she created for her family, Zella stood out to me as a perfect candidate for naming honors at Eastern and I am so excited to see her name in place of Stephen Douglas’ alongside a woman of the same caliber, Ona Norton.

So, this one goes out to Eastern’s first Black student and a woman I have had the honor of getting to know more about over the last two years, Zella Powell.


Corryn Brock is a senior journalism major. She can be reached at 581-2812 or at [email protected].